A golfer was the most versatile athlete of all time you ask? That’s right…she was a golfer. Wait…what? I know…you’re having a hard enough time getting by the title as it is. And then I go and throw in “she.”
Now you’re completely thrown off! I’m obviously a few fries short of a Happy Meal. I’m sure I’ve even lost some credibility (what little I have) with many sports fans. Well, trust me, I would never have thought I would feel this way before I really looked into it.
But, maybe you’ll even agree with me afterward. Maybe you might even consider dropping “most versatile” from the title and replacing it with, simply, “greatest.” After all, being a great golfer on top of numerous other athletic accomplishments, some at an expert level, deserves a little bit more attention than being a standout at only one sport, no?
If you haven’t already guessed who I’m talking about, it’s a little lady by the name of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Most people who know anything about her know the obvious – she was the greatest female golfer of her time (and one of the greatest of all-time). She was a cofounder of the LPGA. She excelled in other sports besides golf and was voted by ESPN’s SportsCentury to be the 10th greatest athlete of the 20th century. While many people are aware she had other athletic achievements, I don’t think most realize exactly how amazing an athlete she was. Quite honestly, she was great at everything she attempted.
Professional golf came relatively late in life for Babe. After high school, she didn’t attempt to play competitively again until she was 24, which makes her golfing achievements all the more impressive. However, seventeen consecutive amateur wins later, a feat still unequaled to this day, she was ready to turn pro. Over the following eight years, Babe went on to win 41 tournaments including ten majors despite playing the final three years of her career while being treated for cancer. Even more amazing was, in 1954, just one month after surgery for colon cancer, she won the US Women’s Open – her final major victory. She was also the first woman to compete on the PGA tour, missing the cut in her first attempt. It would be the last cut she would miss.
But most of us are already aware of her golfing accomplishments. What about the rest? What are the other examples which make her such an amazing athlete? It starts with basketball. Her team won an AAU championship in 1931 and she was an All-American hoops player three times.
You may have also been aware she was an Olympic athlete and participated in the 1932 games. But did you know she actually qualified in five different events? However, due to the rules of the time, being a female she was only allowed to compete in three. And compete she did, taking home two gold medals (hurdles and javelin) and a silver (high-jump). Additionally, she set world records during the Olympics and qualifying tournaments in the 80m hurdles, javelin, high jump and baseball throw (which was an Olympic sport until 1957).
Babe was also a competitive player to a lesser degree in billiards, baseball, softball and bowling. She even won a sewing competition at the Texas State Fair! When not on a competitive playing field, she somehow also found the time to sing and play the harmonica. She did this well enough to record for Mercury Records. Is there anything this woman couldn’t do?
So let’s look at the tally. She’s one of the greatest golfers of all-time. She was an Olympian who took home three medals and set five world records. A three time All-American basketball player. She also competed in baseball, softball, billiards and bowling among other sports. For what reason would she not seriously be considered as the greatest athlete of all-time?
Now, being ranked 10th on the list of greatest athletes of the 20th century does confirm she was at least considered to be listed at number one. But I have to admit, I have a hard time taking the SportsCentury list seriously considering three of the 100 athletes are not even human (they’re horses). I have an even harder time with this list when I see one of the horses (and a jockey for that matter) is ranked 37 places higher than Bo Jackson, an all-star baseball player AND pro-bowl NFL player! Jackson, I might add, could also have been a track & field star, but gave it up to focus on baseball and football. But a guy who rides a horse while beating it with a whip is somehow a better athlete? You get my point.
#1 on the list is Michael Jordan who is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all-time. But does that make him the greatest athlete of the 20th century? Is being the best at one sport a greater feat than excelling at almost every sport you take on? Hard to say.
Considering all of the accomplishments and accolades acquired by Zaharias, I wonder the reason why she wouldn’t be ranked higher on the list. I can only come up with one idea. Maybe you can help me out. If all of these achievements were accomplished by a male, would he be ranked higher?